Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Elephant Express

The Elephant Express awaits departure time in Mackinaw City
In late September 1983 the Michigan Republican Party held a convention at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. To those who have never been, Mackinac Island is in the strait between lower and upper Michigan which means its a fair piece from Detroit. What better way to get there than by train? So the Party arranged with the Detroit area commuter rail operation SEMTA for a special train to carry the delegates. In an aha moment, Julien Wolfe from SEMTA who was also a railfan had the idea of adding a car to the train and selling a trip to his fellow railfans. In spite of the fact that the train was political in nature, and that I would somehow be contributing to a cause I did not believe in, I cast aside all of my prejudices and bought a ticket for myself and my then-wife Nikki.

So it was that on September 23, 1983 we found ourselves on the platform at Birmingham, Michigan waiting for an inbound train to Detroit (just so that we could say that we had ridden it) where we boarded the Elephant Express. The train was a seven(?) car train, including a baggage car, six cars of Republicans and a car of railfans (some of whom may also have been Republicans, but who were decidedly less well dressed.) Also on board were a lot of people who either were, or were about to become friends. Among them were Dave and Carol Ingles and their daughter Suzy who was on her first big-time fan trip, Rick Moser (who I met for the first time that day), the late Tom Post (ditto), and I think Mike Schafer. The route of the train that day was from Detroit to Durand to Saginaw, to Bay City on the Grand Trunk and Western, then on the Michigan Northern operated ex-NYC line through Gaylord and Cheboygan to Mackinaw City (where the Republicans got off), and then on the ex-PRR line to Petoskey (where the rest of us got off). Arrival was well into the evening but the local Holiday Inn was awaiting us.

Suzy Ingles enjoying her first big-time fan trip
On September 24 we awoke to no power in our room at the Holiday Inn. Indeed the whole hotel was without power because of some local maintenance. Sometimes a problem has a ray of sunshine and I reminded my friends that Holiday Inn was running a "No Surprises" campaign and that we had definitely been surprised by the power outage. We all received one night free.

We found a car rental agency and rented a car for our group to use for the day. Then it was off to ride and then chase the Michigan Northern regularly scheduled excursion train that ran over the northern end of the ex-C&O Pere Marquette between Petoskey and Charlevoix. I had gone to summer camp for a number of years (many, many, years ago) at Camp Maplehurst not far from Charlevoix and had been to the town several times when our train got there I insisted we head right over to Murdick's Fudge. My Dad discovered this place (on my recommendation) during a visit to the camp and for years he would have a pound of fudge shipped to Chicago every two weeks during the summer. (Alas the store recently closed with the retirement of the owners, and in my experience the other shops in the area with the Murdick's name are not nearly as good.)

The excursion train near Charlevoix. Alas this line is now a rail trail
One of our party had driven the car down to meet us in Charlevoix and we chased the excursion train back to Petoskey.

The excursion train near Petoskey
Upon return to Petoskey, Nikki and I decided that we wanted to spend the afternoon on Mackinac Island (I had been there when attending camp) but the rest weren't interested. In the first of many such situations to come, Rick offered to drive us to the ferry at Mackinaw City and then come back for us later. Nikki and I had a great time on the Island visiting places such as the Grand Hotel and strolling around the compact island.

No motor vehicles on Mackinac Island
Rick picked us up as planned and we spent another night at the Holiday Inn before boarding a bus to take us to Mackinaw City where the train had been moved after we had left it in Petoskey. The train was scheduled to leave in the afternoon because of the convention schedule. While we were waiting Nikki and I took a walk around town and discovered the local delicacy the pastie (basically a Cornish pastie, but I did not know that then.) They were delicious and we brought a few back to the train to share.

The train eventually left and ran through Petoskey and Cadillac to Reed City on the ex-PRR and from there back to Saginaw on the C&O where we rejoined the Grand Trunk and Western back to Birmingham. As the train approached Cadillac the organizers contacted a local McDonalds to provide needed dinner (it was already after dark). As the train left it was discovered that the McDonalds had not been paid...after a furious call from the manager. This was rectified when the train reached Reed City. 

Every time changed railroads there was a delay due to new crews etc. For instance after paying for the hamburgers our ex-GTW Geeps had to move some freight cars that were parked in our path on the interchange to the C&O before we could proceed. So it wasn't until 3:30am that the train arrived back in Birmingham. When we got there, of course, everyone was anxious to get off...but they detrained through a single vestibule so it took quite some time. Nikki and I drove to a nearby Sheraton where we spent a very short night because she had to be back in Pittsburgh for a class at 5pm. Never-the-less if I had the opportunity to do it again I'd jump at it.

No comments:

Post a Comment